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The 2001 Foot and Mouth Epidemic: an object lesson in regulatory failure

Professor David Campbell and Professor Bob Lee
Cardiff Law School and ESRC Centre for Business Relationships, Accountability, Sustainability and Society
Email: CampbellID@cardiff.ac.uk| and Leerg@Cardiff.ac.uk|

Date: 8 October 2002
: 1:00pm - 2:30pm
: CARR Seminar Room, H615


It is universally accepted that the 2001 foot and mouth disease (FMD) epidemic was inadequately managed by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF; later the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA)). In this paper we will argue that even the most swingeing criticisms so far made of MAFF's performance do not appreciate the extent of the regulatory failure which the FMD epidemic represents. It is not merely that MAFF handled the epidemic badly, though there can be no doubt its performance was abysmal; much more importantly it was MAFF that caused the epidemic.

The disease control regime established under the Animal Health Act 1981 makes such control a public good, the responsibility for which is placed upon MAFF (and other public agencies). Farmers are expected to co-operate with zoosanitary measures, but have little exposure either to the direct costs of such measures or to the consequential costs of loss of livestock due to disease, for which they will be compensated. This regime is not incentive compatible, for in it the costs of FMD are made external to the pricing of livestock rearing practices by farmers. The practices developed under this regime have proven to be sufficient to turn an inevitable outbreak of FMD into the greatest epidemic of the disease ever recorded.

FMD is an extremely contagious disease of cloven-footed animals sporadically endemic in most areas of the world where livestock are reared. Its suppression in the UK and the EU has required very extensive post-war public investment. Since 1990, FMD control in the EU has been based on the 'stamping out' policy whereby local outbreaks are eliminated by the slaughter of infected and seriously at-risk animals.

Stamping out can work cost-effectively only if outbreaks are localised. But the livestock rearing practices adopted under the public disease control regime, which included millions of long-distance live animal movements, could hardly have more effectively spread the disease if they been designed to do so. By the time the 2001 outbreak was confirmed, it had been spread to 57 locations across the UK. MAFF was never able to catch up with the outbreak, and stamping out became more or less indiscriminate, panic slaughter as 10 million animals were killed, probably 90% of which were uninfected, in one of the most disgusting policy failures of modern times (a distinction which has to be earned against very stiff competition).

That the history of the epidemic is one of wasted public expenditure, despicably cruel mass slaughter, uncompensated harm to third parties such as those in the tourism industry and living near funeral pyres, etc is coming to be known, and MAFF's incompetence criticised. But that it was MAFF's disease control policy that caused the epidemic that had these catastrophic results is not as yet acknowledged. In the absence of this acknowledgement, the very same policy failures are being repeated and the conditions of a new epidemic being put in place again.